In recent weeks, the random violence against Indians in Australia has been remarkable not just for what is happening Down Under but also for how it is being played out up here. The attacks on Indians are, of course, deeply disquieting. Whatever the initial claims of the Melbourne police — its description of the occurrences as ‘opportunistic activity’ was, well, inopportune — the fact is that at least some Indians have been targeted because of skin colour.
The Australian government has moved into damage control mode. It has been pressured by New Delhi. Canberra also senses that if the phenomenon persists or expands, it could acquire a life of its own. Perceptions of Australian racism, more than any active racism per se, could become an even bigger story, and a public relations disaster across south and southeast Asia.
For a country so dependent on foreign markets — commodity buyers, tourists, overseas students — this is non-negotiable. Education is Australia’s third largest export industry and it cannot afford an impression that it is an unsafe destination. Indeed, the surge in Indian enrolment in Australian universities began in 2002-03, primarily because they were seen as safer and more accessible in contrast to post-9/11 American campuses.
It is interesting how both Indian ministers and their Australian counterparts were forced into breathless reaction by the Indian media’s coverage of the ‘racism story’. This represents a phenomenon at once noteworthy and somewhat worrying. It establishes that news channels are democratising not just India’s domestic political debate, but also its global attitudes.
Is incensed middle-class opinion, provoked by overdone television news packages, emerging as a new source of foreign policy? It is a piquant question. More than whether this is good or bad, one must recognise that it is there.
There is a broader point here. Whether in social, economic or cultural spheres, India’s engagement with the rest of the world has ballooned in the past 15-odd years. Take education. Fifty years ago, a small elite sent its children to Oxbridge. Twenty-five years ago, a slightly bigger upper middle class sent its children to the US. These groups were English-speaking and often had prior experience — or at least knowledge — of the countries they were going to.
In contrast, many of the students who have suffered in Australia are from smaller towns and humbler backgrounds, with parents who have struggled and saved to pay for their education. A substantial number have left their state, let alone their country, for the first time.
Till even the early 1990s, India meeting the world largely meant bureaucrats in bandgalas shaking hands with bureaucrats in suits. Today, it has many dimensions — business-to-business, tourist-to-host, student-to-university.
In a wider reckoning, India finds itself a bigger economic and political power than at any time in its independent history. Yet, the intellectual tools and mechanisms that shape its worldview, its foreign policy and its sense of strategy remain rooted in another era. Cogitation on external relations is still the domain of a small Delhi club of retired diplomats and generals, with a few analysts and journalists thrown in.
There is obviously a gap between the demographic groups — whether they be Jalandhar families that send their sons to Melbourne University, or Pune-based techies who write software programmes for clients in Minnesota — that are driving India’s engagement with the world, and the ivory-tower elite that has arrogated foreign policy thinking to itself.
This gulf is untenable. In 10 years or so, it will severely contract and a new equilibrium will inevitably set in. Till that happens, however, there will be a degree of turmoil and confusion and the Australia episode is a sampler.
As a society’s relationship with the world moves beyond the realm of government, it is calibrated by new intellectual mechanisms — think-tanks, civil society institutions, academia and so on. They complement, even supplant, government groupthink.
The problem is that India lacks this infrastructure. It has scarcely any independent think-tanks. Its higher education is so closed and forbidding that foreigners can enter only at their peril. Instead, it has retired pundits who speak a language unintelligible to the proverbial family in Jalandhar.
This vacuum is filled by television. Other countries have think-tanks, India makes do with prime-time chat shows. The problem with the medium is that it has only one, reductionist template — good versus bad, right versus left, BJP versus Congress. When it extends this framework to explaining the rest of the planet, the effects are hair-raising.
To media consumers who got initiated into Australian society this past week, that country must seem formidably scary, almost the fastness of Ming of Mongo. There was discussion on a ‘white Australia’ policy that went out of business 30 years ago. Clips of Australian cricketers sledging or arguing with Indian, West Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers were juxtaposed with reportage of attacks on Indian students, as if one were dealing with a nation of all-purpose bigots.
On one television show, an anchor said Australia had been preceded by attacks on Indians in Germany, the United States and Idi Amin’s Uganda and wondered why the world hated Indians. This is a happy universe of nuance-free non sequiturs.
Even so, India’s television-propelled middle class opinion is a clear and present reality. It will shape discourse that will hassle and harangue governments, demand instant action and colourful rhetoric. In some senses, the drama outside the Delhi airport during the IC-814 hijack was a teaser trailer. This is the new India. Now even Kevin Rudd knows that.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based journalist.